Jeremy Brett - the Definitive Sherlock Holmes?
One of the best things about movies and TV series, is seeing some of our favourite characters brought to the screen. Of all the actors to take on the role of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous consulting detective, there have been some interesting depictions, but how many of them have revealed the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes as his creator described him? British actor Jeremy Brett (in my opinion) did more than most to bring the great man's creation to life, and many Holmesian fans consider his to be the ultimate portrayal of the infamous sleuth.
Will the Real Sherlock Holmes Please Step Forward?
Ever since the first silent movies portrayed Arthur Conan Doyle's eminent detective, actors have clamoured to don the deerstalker and add their own mark to the character.
In the early days, Sherlock Holmes was played by such stalwarts as H A Saintsbury, Hugo Flink and William Gillette. The coming of sound to the movies also had a huge impact and a host of big-screen adaptations began to appear. However, it was the introduction of television into our living rooms that really made the biggest difference to the character's popularity. Newly-formed TV companies looked at the stories and saw the potential for TV series, and Sherlock Holmes began to pop up on our screens with increasing regularly.
Acting the part
More than a hundred actors have taken on the role of Sherlock Holmes on radio, television and stage, as well as on the big screen, including the series of 14 films featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson which, despite Bruce's bumbling portrayal, did much to further the popularity of the stories. And while there's been much discussion about who's the best Holmes, almost as much fuss has been made over the depiction of his sidekick, Dr Watson.
Movies aside, I think it's only in the long-running TV series that actors really had the chance to get to grips with the character. Some of the most notable are worth a mention here - silent movie actor Eille Norwood, for instance, starred in no less than 48 shorts based on the original stories; Alan Wheatley (better known as the Sheriff of Nottingham in The Adventures of Robin Hood) took on the role in 1951 for six episodes.
Then there was Ronald Howard (son of matinee idol Leslie Howard) who played Holmes in Sheldon Reynolds’ American series. Douglas Wilmer also donned the deerstalker in an early BBC version, with horror film regular Peter Cushing taking over the role for the second series.
While all of these interpretations have been significant, few have come close to showing the character as Conan Doyle created him. Beginning with The Adventures of Sherlock Homes, ITV’s long-running series took the stories seriously with a view to producing versions that were nearer to the originals than most previous attempts.
In 1983, production of this new series was begun by Manchester-based company Granada (responsible for such classic serials as Family at War, Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown). A considerable amount of money was spent on creating a realistic series, with a brand new Baker Street set built at their Manchester studios near the set of long-running soap Coronation Street. Producer John Hawkesworth, who had previously worked on Upstairs Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke Street, developed the series for television and wrote many of the episodes.
Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in ITV's 41 episodes was always very precise and thought provoking. He introduced several rather nice touches to the character, such as throwing himself on the ground to inspect a set of footprints. (This was of course a feature of Conan Doyle's original character and one of several characteristics which Brett picked up on very quickly).
Brett was very keen to portray Holmes as close as possible to the descriptions in the books. His point of view often caused arguments over those scripts which he believed didn't reflect the stories truthfully. Eventually, Granada allowed him to have a longer rehearsal period so he could spend more time concentrating on characterization. Even so, a few episodes (such as The Last Vampyre) veer well away from the original stories.
Jeremy Brett is thought of by many to be the archetypal Sherlock Holmes. He brought humour, honesty and a great intensity to the part, giving a most realistic portrayal of the character and his many facets and foibles. The productions also utilised realistic sets and stuck quite closely to the books. Following The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the series continued with The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Two TV movies were also made: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four.
Thankfully, due to endless repeats and DVD's, Brett's TV exploits are now available for Sherlock Holmes fans everywhere, with the whole series available as a boxed set.
Detective on Stage
Jeremy Brett was also well known as an actor in the theatre, and between 1988 and 1989 he portrayed Sherlock Holmes on stage, along with Edward Hardwicke as Watson. The play, written by Jeremy Paul (who also wrote several episodes of the ITV series), was titled "The Secret of Sherlock Holmes" and ran for over a year, touring all over the UK.
Taking on the role of Holmes however, took its toll on Brett's health. After the death of his second wife, Joan Sullivan Wilson, who died of cancer in 1985, evidence of Brett's battle against depression became more noticeable - particularly in some of the later episodes in the series. In "The Mazarin Stone" for instance, Brett appears only for a few minutes at the beginning and very briefly at the end, with his role being largely taken over by Charles Gray (as Mycroft).
The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) lists more than 260 TV series, movies, cartoons and short films portraying Arthur Conan Doyle's infamous detective. However, I think only Jeremy Brett has really explored the character thoroughly and revealed Sherlock Homes the way Doyle described him. Brett's legacy is a truly great collection of crime dramas, but it’s terribly sad that his best work probably contributed to his untimely death:
"When I came out of the asylum, the person who collected me was Edward Hardwicke. He took me to an Italian restaurant. I had a pasta and a glass of red wine. He then drove me back to my home where we sat and had a cup of tea".
Answers to the Sherlock actors
From left to right: Tom Baker, Jonathan Pryce, Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Cushing, Richard Roxburgh, Ronald Howard, Nicol Williamson, Christopher Lee, Jonny Lee Miller, Ben Syder, Eille Norwood, Douglas Wilmer, Roger Moore and Stewart Granger.